Perhaps no man in history despised anything Green Bay Packers on a football field more than the Papa Bear, George Halas.
However, perhaps no man outside Wisconsin made more of a difference in keeping the Packers afloat than that same founder, player, head coach and general manager of Green Bay’s archrival.
Packers team historian Cliff Christl reveals that the franchise in American sports’ smallest market was the biggest moneymaker for their Chicago-based archrival, and that their mutual survival in the harshest of economic climates depended on each other.
“George Halas did what was best for George Halas,” said Christl.
“What was best for George Halas was to beat the Packers’ brains out every time they played on the football field. What was best for George Halas’ bottom line was that Green Bay filled his coffers. The Packers were his biggest draw because of the intensity of the rivalry. He protected Green Bay, looked after Green Bay.”
It began five years after the Packers played the Chicago Staleys – the precursor of the Bears – in 1921.
“I think that George Halas’ greatest contribution to the Packers was his agreeing, starting in the mid-1920’s, to playing them three times a year,” said Christl.
“The Packers drew the biggest crowds in Chicago and elsewhere in the NFL. That story of David vs. Goliath was irresistible to the big-city sportswriters.”
Of course, Halas demanded that two of the three games be played in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, a much-bigger venue than Green Bay’s City Stadium. It might not have been a fair competitive advantage in the Packers’ eyes, but they would gladly take the bigger economic windfall of playing twice at Wrigley Field in a year, as they did in 1926 – in fact, twice within a month that year.
“They boosted the Bears’ gate tremendously. Had the Packers not had that opportunity, they probably wouldn’t have survived. They didn’t draw that well in Green Bay. They were too small,” said Christl.
This was in an era without television, and where radio didn’t bring huge rights fees. The franchises’ financial well-being depended on ticket sales.
“(The Packers) were the best drawing team in the league on the road, particularly in New York and Chicago. The league’s average attendance was around 12,000 or less. Packers games in New York and Chicago would draw in the mid-30,000’s. That’s why George Halas wanted to play the Packers twice at home each season.”
The draw was even bigger because these two teams dominated the NFL’s Western Division in the league’s formative years.
Starting in the mid-20’s, certainly by the late 20’s, the Packers and Bears dominated the league,” said Christl.
“Just look at how many titles they won over that stretch, from then through World War II.”
As a matter of fact, from 1929-1944, only once did the Packers or Bears not win either the Western Division or the NFL title.
That dynastic success for each franchise came in the worst economic hardship in modern American history – the Great Depression.
In that setting, even the best teams struggled to make it financially – so much so that the Packers and Bears even loaned money to each other to help their mutual survival.
Halas couldn’t meet the Packers gate for a game during the depression. Lee Joannes, the Packers’ president, took a note, an IOU basically from Halas. They both did favors for each other,” said Christl.
“Even Lambeau and Halas, as much they despised each other on the playing field, realized how important the other was to their finances.”
The 1941 Western Division playoff, to break a tie between two 10-1 teams, proved not only the excellence of the franchises, but the fact that the Packers-Bears game was the biggest draw for Halas – much more important to the bottom line than a championship.
“One week after Pearl Harbor…the Packers and Bears sold out Wrigley Field. The Bears won. A week later they hosted the New York Giants at Wrigley Field. They sold 13,000 tickets. A Packers-Bears game was bigger than the NFL Championship Game.”
But after 1944, the Packers’ last title under Curly Lambeau, such title game dreams were merely those – dreams.
It brought the main instance Christl cited when Halas and the Packers were at financial odds. He fought against the Packers being in his own division, since their sub-par status in the early 1950’s was leading to a box office malaise when they would play.
“If it wasn’t in his interest financially, he didn’t look after them,” said Christl
“In 1950, when the Packers were struggling, not drawing well, still playing in (Green Bay East) High School stadium that had become badly outdated, dilapidated, he tried to push to have the Packers put…in a different conference than the Bears. That would have killed the franchise, since with the Bears game, the Packers could pretty much count on drawing a sellout at home. They do well for the Lions. The other games, they didn’t draw so well.”
Thankfully for the Packers, the NFL placed the Chicago Cardinals in the opposite conference and the twice-a-year rivalry continued with the Bears.
That rivalry was as vicious as the legend made it out to be. It wasn’t just during the action, but outside it where Halas would apparently play games with Lambeau and his successors.
“Curly Lambeau would claim Halas cut their phone lines for a game back in the 30’s or 40’s. That time, the NFL didn’t care if the coaches could speak to the coaches (in the booth) and the other team couldn’t. The Bears could still continue to operate that way where the Packers could have no communication between the press box and the field,” said Christl.
“Once Lombardi became coach, when the Packers would go down to play in Wrigley, the Bears would keep the tarp on the field so the Packers couldn’t hold a decent practice on Saturday. Players always told me the showers were always cold at Wrigley. There was a lot of shenanigans that wouldn’t happen today.”
Those shenanigans even may have drifted into actions James Bond might have appreciated.
“Lambeau was paranoid that Halas was sending up spies to roam the streets of Green Bay back in the 30’s and 40’s to find out whatever tips he could,” said Christl.
“At that time, players (were) hanging out at hotels and hanging out at bars. Some guy could walk in and innocently start a conversation about what kind of strategy they would use that Sunday and find something out.”
Might Halas have also sent spies to the practice field, in a pre-video kind of reconnaissance mission Bill Belichick might have been accused of if he coached in that era?
“Gene Ronzani who played for Halas and succeeded Lambeau, when he came in 1950, he would take the team inside Blue Jay stadium and practice there during Bear week. It was an old wood fence in the outfield, and he would have players who were injured stand in front of holes in the wall to make sure nobody from the Bears were peeping through.”
Yet it was another kind of vision that became a way Halas made a massive contribution. Television.
In the mid-1950’s, the NFL began national television contracts with networks like NBC and CBS. Christl said Halas was a proponent, along with Commissioner Bert Bell, for making sure that the Packers got an equal piece of the revenue pie. Revenue sharing is now a standard part of NFL contracts – and a critical piece of how the Packers can still compete with big-market teams like Chicago and New York.
But maybe his biggest contribution to the Packers’ survival came with the pitch to build what is now the longest-continuing stadium in the NFL, Lambeau Field.
“He came to Green Bay before the referendum on whether to build a new stadium here. Basically, Green Bay had to build a stadium or they were going to lose the Packers. He told the public that in a rally at a downtown auditorium. The referendum passed overwhelmingly,” said Christl.
For less than $1 million, Lambeau Field was built. Its first game was between George Halas’ Bears and the hometown Packers. It was played on September 29, 1957 – exactly 59 years and 364 days before the matchup’s 195th regular season meeting tonight at Lambeau Field.
Neither meeting might have happened without the off-field support George Halas gave the Packers – despite their on-field antipathy.